Readings from Paul Johnson #5
Historian, Paul Johnson, quickly became one of my favorite writers as I read through his gigantic work, The Birth of the Modern. I have heard so many good things over the years about his biographical book, Intellectuals, I decided to pick it up and add it to my already bulging reading list.
The Adulation of Rousseau
In a number of ways the State Rousseau planned for Corsica anticipated the one the Pol Pot regime actually tried to create in Cambodia, and this is not entirely surprising since the Paris-educated leaders of the regime had all absorbed Rousseau's ideas. Of course, Rousseau sincerely believed that such a State would be contented since the people would have been trained to like it. He did not use the word 'brainwash', but he wrote: 'Those who control a people's opinions control its actions.' Such control is established by treating citizens, from infancy, as children of the State, trained to 'consider themselves only in their relationship to the Body of the State.' ...
The educational process was thus the key to the success of the cultural engineering needed to make the State acceptable and successful; the axis of Rousseau's ideas was the citizen as child and the State as parent, and he insisted the governments should have complete charge of the upbringing of all children. Hence -- and this is the true revolution Rousseau's ideas brought about -- he moved the political process to the very centre of human existence by making the legislator, who is also a pedagogue, into the new Messiah, capable of solving all human problems by creating New Men. ...
Rousseau's reputation during his lifetime, and his influence after his death, raise disturbing questions about human gullibility, and indeed about the human propensity to reject evidence it does not wish to admit. The acceptability of what Rousseau wrote depended in great part on his strident claim to be not merely virtuous but the most virtuous man of his time. Why did not this claim collapse in ridicule and ignominy when his weaknesses and vices became not merely public knowledge but the subject of international debate? After all the people who assailed him were not strangers or political opponents but former friends and associates who had gone out of their way to assist him. Their charges were serious and the collective indictment devastating. Hume, who had once though him 'gentle, modest, affectionate, disinterested and exquisitely sensitive', decided, from more extensive experience, that he was 'a monster who saw himself as the only important being in the universe.' To Volitare, 'a monster of vanity and vileness'. Saddest of all are the judgments passed on him by kindhearted women who helped him, like Madame d'Epinay, and her harmless husband ...
One modern academic lists Rousseau's shortcomings as follows: he was a 'masochist, exhibitionist, neurasthenic, hypochondriac, onanist, latent homosexual afflicted by the typical urge for repeated displacements, incapable of normal parental affection, incipient paranoiac, narcissistic introvert rendered unsocial by his illness, filled with guilt feelings, pathologically timid, a kleptomaniac, infantilist, irritable and miserly.'
Such accusations, and extensive display of the evidence on which they are based, made very little difference to the regard in which Rousseau and his works were, and are, held by those for whom he has an intellectual and emotional attraction. During his life, no matter how many friendships he destroyed, he never found any difficulty in forming new ones and recruiting fresh admirers, disciples and grandees to provide him with houses, dinners and the incense he craved. When he died he was buried on the Ile des Peupliers on the lake at Ermononville and this rapidly became a place of secular pilgrimage for men and women from all over Europe, like the shrine of a saint in the Middle Ages. Descriptions of the antics of these devotes make hilarious reading: 'I dropped to my knees... pressed my lips to the cold stone of the monument... and kissed it repeatedly.' Relics, such as his tobacco pouch and jar, were carefully preserved at 'the Sanctuary' as it was known.
One recalls Erasmus and John Colet visiting the great shrine of St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury in 1512 and sneering at the excesses of the pilgrims. What would they have found to say of 'Saint Rousseau' (As George Sand was reverently to call him), three hundred years after the Reformation had supposedly ended that sort of thing? The plaudits continued long after the ashes were transfered to the Pantheon. To Kant he had 'a sensibility of soul of unequalled perfection'. To Shelly he was 'a sublime genius'. For Schiller he was 'a Christlike soul for whom only Heaven's angels are fit company'. John Stuart Mill and George Eliot, Hugo and Flaubert, paid deep homage. Tolstoy said that Rousseau and the Gospel had been 'the two great and healthy influences of my life.' One of the most influential intellectuals of our own times, Claude Levi-Strauss, in his principal work, Tristes Tropiques, hails him as 'our master and our brother... every page of this book could have been dedicated to him, had it not been unworthy of his great memory'.
It is all very baffling and suggests that intellectuals are as unreasonable, illogical and superstitious as anyone else. [Intellectuals, pg. 25, 26, 27]